I am leading a field trip to Qingdao, for the fourth time in as many years. We arrive and are in the customs counter line. The students are messing around and I say, “You need to behave, Chinese customs is not a place to goof around.” Leading by example, I approach the counter when it is my turn. There are two officers both in green military style uniforms, red stars on the epaulettes. I say, “Ni Ho” and one man reaches for my passport, no comment or acknowledgement of me on his face. At this point, this is a normal interaction with Chinese customs officials, I have done this at least 12 times.
Midway through the summer of 2015 I applied for a new passport as I was nervous I wouldn’t get into the Philippines as I had only five months left before renewal–some countries are more strict about this than others. I had just spent two weeks in Bali and I was tanned, short haired, and in those days I had a thick blue line traced around my mouth were my almost instantaneous five o’clock shadow grew. It wasn’t a great passport photo.
Back in the present, the Chinese guard asks me to lift my longish hair. I do so and smile, then try to look like the straight-face, square-jawed man in the passport photo. It is no use, he speaks to his partner in an authoritative tone and waves me aside. My heart racing, I am led to a separate area with an elevated counter which gave the customs officer the air of a judge leering down at me from his judicial perch, a camera was in my face. He asks me to produce more ID. He said, “This does not look like you.” I calmly pass him my license and Korean alien card. Inside I felt my nerves melt like hot-sour butter. He asks me to raise my hair again, then again, he looks over the IDs and then me, all the while maintaining a stern cold expression.
Eventually, glowering, he hands me my documents and passes me through.
I am five months on hormones on the sixth of March. I suppose I am happy in a sense that I don’t look like the person on those documents, I don’t want to. But, I was surprised to run into this problem so quickly. It was a terrifying experience and highlighted to me, viscerally, the challenges us trans women face when travelling. Do I get my documents changed this summer? But, I travel often and live abroad. What happens if I don’t look female to the border guard? Do I then get searched? I am not planning on doing anything with various parts of my anatomy anytime soon. It’s a terrify, unfair, and unnecessary reality. Airports are already intrusive and I don’t need the extra layer of concern.